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“First we need to clarify something,” says Jan Kemker. “A gruit is not a beer, in the same way that kveik is not a beer. Gruit is more like a lifestyle.”
Kemker is the founder of an eponymous brewery, opened in 2018 in the pastoral outskirts of the northern German city of Münster. Not satisfied with simply brewing with gruit—the traditional herbal infusion added to beer in Europe before hops were widely used—Kemker has enticed fellow travelers to Münster for Grutkultur, a one-night festival celebrating all things herbal, spontaneous, and mixed-fermentation.
Against the incongruous backdrop of the Fischbrathalle, a 1920s seafood restaurant in Münster’s medieval city center, a heaving crowd of expectant drinkers squeezes itself between bemused diners. They’re here to get their fill of unconventional herbal beers brought to Germany by brewers from Belgium, the Netherlands, and the U.S., as well as a few local representatives.
Together they are carrying on an ancient European tradition that locally predates the Reinheitsgebot, and which internationally has swelled into a wider movement. Sparked by a vibrant homebrewing community looking beyond Germany’s deeply rooted Lager brewing traditions, a new generation of German brewers is exploring through gruit—and the resurrection of other complex but moribund regional beer traditions and styles—what beer can be beyond the rigors of Germany’s beer purity regulations.
#GRUITLIFE They might not put it this way, but the goal of these brewers is to go backwards—to a time before hops were king, and before Pasteur’s research led to modernized brewing, with its formulaic insistence on single yeast strains. They’re seeking something more primitive and more authentically rooted in their surroundings. Their techniques could be described as an offshoot of Belgium’s spontaneous and mixed-fermentation brewing traditions, and of Nordic farmhouse brewing’s primordial practices.
Münster seems an unlikely home for a new generation of German brewing radicals. It has none of the historical brewing cachet of its neighbors Cologne and Düsseldorf to the west, nor the urban edge of Berlin’s new wave craft beer scene to the east, nevermind the internationally celebrated traditions of Bavaria to the south. But once upon a time, Münster was home to a thriving brewing center, plugged into a pre-modern, northern European gruit-making culture where the people in control of the gruit demurred only to bishops and mayors.
What went into a particular gruit mixture was determined by geography and climate, but the basic components were largely the same: bog myrtle as a primary ingredient in addition to yarrow, wild rosemary, caraway, juniper, wormwood and whatever other herbs and spices were indigenous or available to a gruit maker. Every gruit mix was determined by the plants that grew nearby; where bog myrtle was more prevalent in the Low Countries and western Germany, marsh (or wild) rosemary was used more in northern Germany and in Scandinavia. Belgian and Dutch gruit makers added laurel berries, probably sourced from southern Europe, while the use of juniper in brewing in Scandinavia predates medieval herbal beers.
“I was kind of shocked when I first found out we lost our mother language a hundred years ago. We speak a different language from our grandparents. [And] the same is true of our food and drinks tradition.”
— Philip Overberg, Gruthaus Brauerei The local gruit recipe, along with the right to mix and sell it, was held as a monopoly either by civilian or church authorities, acting as an indirect tax on brewers who were obligated to buy gruit if they wanted to make beer. In Münster the gruit monopoly was in the control of first the ruling prince-bishops and subsequently the civilian town council for whom it made up, at one point in the 14th century, two-thirds of the city’s revenue.
Münster’s master of gruit, the Grutherr, set up business in an annex to the city’s Gothic town hall as far back as the 12th century, and the Gruthaus stood there until it was demolished in the 1860s. All that’s left of it is an echo, its former location now named Gruetgasse. But by the 19th century, and in fact much earlier, northern Europe’s gruit tradition had long ceased to exist anywhere except within old Gruthaus records.
Beer made with hops and beer made with gruit existed in parallel, and in some regions—including in Münster, as evidenced by archival material—hops were even used as part of the gruit herb mixture. Hops eventually supplanted gruit as the dominant botanical addition to beer, preferred for their lower cost, their less astringent and more pleasing bitterness, and better preservative qualities that delayed the souring of beer. The power of the gruit monopoly dwindled.
There is another theory of gruit’s decline, put forward by Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book, Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers. He suggests ecclesiastical authorities were quite happy to see hops, with their sedating, anaphrodesiacal qualities replace “highly intoxicating […] narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic” gruit mix.
TRAVELING TO MY OWN PAST When Philip Overberg started brewing beers with gruit in his apartment, he wasn’t looking for a pick-me-up, but he was drawn to gruit’s “primitive, simple” approach. Overberg is a regular collaborator of Kemker’s, and he has come to Münster’s Fischbrathalle to cheerily pour his Gruthaus Brauerei beers from a small, battered barrel with the words “samerland grut” scrawled on luminous yellow tape stuck to the top.
Overberg has been homebrewing for over a decade, and early on discovered an affinity for Belgium’s Trappist breweries. More than their history and their ease of reproduction on his makeshift kit, the beers seemed to represent an ineffable quality that had long since disappeared from Münster’s brewing traditions. “The beer styles from Belgium attracted me because […] I thought they were closer to the traditional beers from my hometown that were lost, and I went to Belgium, or to England, to travel to my own past, to a history that was totally forgotten,” he says.
A student of linguistics and language history, Overberg is well-versed in the impact of German unification in the 1870s, but even he was taken by surprise upon discovering more about the subsequent and rapid industrialization of Westphalia’s folk traditions and culture. “I was kind of shocked when I first found out we lost our mother language a hundred years ago. We speak a different language from our grandparents,” he says. “[And] the same is true of our food and drinks tradition,” with Lager pushing aside less accessible regional styles. The cultural amnesia that obscured Münster’s brewing heritage rankled this amateur beer historian.
So he set to work. “I wanted to try and find out what was left,” Overberg says. “It was an adventure for me.” Many of the records he discovered were unreliable, focused more on excise duty than recipe formulation, and what historical writing on gruit he could find was even less helpful.
An added complication here is that “gruit” can have several different meanings. It is the “lifestyle” (“brewing philosophy” is probably a more accurate description) referred to by Kemker. It is the mixture of herbs and spices that Overberg has researched. And in contemporary brewing, “Gruit Ale” has also become the catch-all style nomenclature for beers made with a gruit or herbal mixture.
“Really, it was fiction,” he says of the historical surveys of gruit brewing. “No one tried to understand what had happened during the brewing, what ingredients were used.”
Benedickt Koch, fellow German revivalist of nearly extinct styles, is familiar with Overberg’s challenge. Koch has involved himself since 2015 in the researching and brewing, under his Wilder Wald brand, of historically accurate, regional German beers like salty-sour Gose from Goslar and tart Berliner Weisse from Berlin. Koch has worked regularly with Ulrike Genz of Berlin brewery Schneeeule, herself a pivotal figure in the rescuing of Berlin’s native beer style from obscurity and mediocrity. Koch is just as distrustful of dead brewers as Overberg. But there are better sources out there. “An ethnographer [for example] is documenting stuff, asking around, asking what are the ingredients, how the brewers get their water,” says Koch. “And there you can see a really good overview [of brewing methods].”
DIGGING A HOLE Overberg's ethnographic adventure did bear fruit, and he has been able to cobble together enough information to, as he sees it, ably reconstruct Münster’s historical gruit mixture. Invaluable input came from a most unexpected source: a rich seam of human excrement mined by archeologists from the bottom of a medieval latrine.
“They found the remains of hops, juniper, caraway, and bog myrtle, and they asked me how this could be possible that in one stratum of this toilet are these four ingredients appearing together at the same time,” Overberg says. “They thought this clearly had something to do with brewing.” And Overberg naturally agreed. “They have excavations for a period of 300 years, and it is all the same. It’s always hops and bog myrtle, caraway, juniper. [And] that’s what I find 300 years later in the oldest book in the Gruthaus.”
The Gruit Ale that came out of this process is a synthesis of elements from historical record and Overberg’s own gut instinct—literal and figurative. “I always combine historical research with some practical brewing,” he says. “I had this belief, it’s not very scientifical [sic], but when I think a beer is nice, I think it might have been nice for our forefathers too.”
“I was traveling […and] I started to see cities where beer history was still alive. I questioned myself, asking, ‘Where is the beer history in Münster?’”
— Jan Kemker, Brauerei Kemker KultuurMuch like how Münster’s post-war architects approached the reconstruction of its inner city, bombed into ruin during World War II—respecting traditions but using modern approximations where needed—Overberg is aiming for a reconstruction that takes its cues from the past but is still palatable to modern tastes.
Overberg’s modern gruit mix is uncomplicated. To a basic Belgian Witbier recipe, he adds bog myrtle—imparting an astringent, resinous quality—alongside juniper berries, caraway, and a small addition of hops. Overberg’s main divergence from historical orthodoxy is in the quantity of gruit he adds to his beers.
“The first gruit beer that I made was based on a beer recipe with only very little gruit herbs, in the amount that I thought historically correct, and people just didn’t recognize it as a herbal beer,” he says. So when the time came to brew with Kemker, the pair increased the herb quota and christened it Dubbel Porse (“porse” is Middle Low German for “bog myrtle”), given it had twice the gruit and twice the alcohol by volume of a historically accurate Münster Gruit. And the result? A russet-orange beer, spritzy with strong carbonation, slightly resinous, sherberty, tannic, and with a grassy, minty, herbal bitterness.
Overberg is thrilled to have someone like Kemker nearby, someone who values the city’s beer heritage as highly as he does; February’s Grutkultur festival is “like Christmas and my birthday all in the same day,” he says. Overberg may have been brewing these beers for longer than Kemker, but his work with Gruthaus remains a side project. It is Kemker, with his full-time brewery and international connections, who is now the locus around which the region’s gruit renaissance hinges.
It is on Kemker’s invitation that the likes of Dutch breweries De Kromme Haring from Utrecht and Nevel from Nijmegen, and La Source Brew Co. from Brussels, have come to Münster to share their beers with the curious and the fanatical alike. As the night in the Fischbrathalle wears on, Kemker pours beers, slaps backs, sells entry tickets, and escapes the boisterous crowd out into the glinting cobbled streets to saber magnums of Lambic brought to Münster as tributes from fellow gruit acolytes.
WHERE IS THE BEER HISTORY IN MÜNSTER? Fast forward a couple of weeks later, and Kemker is in his element at his brewery a couple of miles outside Münster. In 2017, he bought a former cattle stable on a working farm just a short stroll from his childhood home in the hamlet of Alverskirchen, not far from the horticulture store where he helped his grandfather pick heirloom tomatoes.
Now his brewery looks out on the meadowlands and barley fields that ring the city. He shares his bucolic setting with mud-caked pigs chortling in next-door pens and chickens picking at seeds strewn in the farmyard. The cattle are long since gone, replaced by whitewashed walls and Kemker’s “Frankenstein brewing system,” as he calls it. He has jury-rigged old dairy vats to serve as dual mash tuns, alongside opaque IBC fermentation tanks and a collection of 40-odd repurposed red-wine barrels. The real star of the brewery sits outside in the courtyard, propped up against a red-brick wall: a homemade coolship.
It’s a construction all Kemker’s own, again made from recycled diary equipment, and it’s an essential part of his mission to re-establish Münster’s brewing heritage. He uses it to cool his wort, inoculate it with wild yeast, and infuse it with his gruit mix. Like Overberg, Kemker’s interest in Münster’s traditions came early in his homebrewing career, and is tinged with the same wistfulness.“I was traveling […and] I started to see cities where beer history was still alive,” he says. “I questioned myself, asking, ‘Where is the beer history in Münster?’”
When Kemker departed his Master’s degree in agricultural studies early to open the brewery, he was motivated by a combination of this romanticism and hard-headed business thinking. “To me it makes sense to make a beer that I’m passionate about, where it can tell an authentic story,” Kemker says. “I was born in Münster, I’ve lived most of my time here. [And] I’m brewing beer in the Münster area.”
For Kemker, gruit was an important part of his story—but it wasn’t the only part.
Between the demise of gruit and the rise of Lager brewing, Münster was also home to another wildly successful kind of beer. One that is still, technically, brewed in the historical city center today. Münstersch Alt shares the name of its more famous Düsseldorf sibling and the complexion of Cologne’s top-fermented Kölsch beers, but is neither. A golden sour ale made with barley and sometimes wheat, and aged in wooden vessels at cool temperatures for nine months or more, it was the dominant beer made in the city from 1700s through to the late 19th century—a period, Kemker says, when Münster had 140 breweries at any given time.
Consumer tastes changed with the rise of industrial brewing, and the city’s remaining Altbier brewers reformulated their recipes accordingly—from wood to stainless steel, from longer to shorter maturation times. What remains of Münstersch Alt is a wan beer, less enjoyable alone than when it’s paired with a plate of Westphalian charcuterie and potatoes in the darkened dining halls of the restaurant of Pinkus Muller, Münster’s last remaining Altbier brewery.
REVIVING MÜNSTERSCH ALT Kemker went back to original sources and original techniques when creating his own take on Münstersch Alt. He brews with the heritage English malt strain Chevallier (grown near the farm) and aged whole-cone hops. He ferments with his own house culture and ages the beer in barrels (even if his are smaller than the ones traditionally used at the height of the style’s popularity). Then, he blends batches for the final product—one that has come with local endorsement. “We had one elderly person coming to our brewery talking about the old Altbier, and he kind of confirmed that this was the real stuff,” Kemker says.
Kemker places his Alt “between a Lambic and a Berliner Weisse.” It’s a beer that also leans towards cidery notes, with its fruity, tangy character, and with a drying tannic aftertaste courtesy of the wine barrels. It’s a description that makes sense geographically and philosophically. Not just because of the presence of a coolship—an integral part of Lambic brewing—on the farm, but because of the enduring influence of the Low Countries in his approach to brewing.
Up here in the northwest of Germany, the Dutch and Belgian borders are both nearer than Berlin. Westphalia and the Netherlands have close historical ties—the Dutch Republic was recognized for the first time as a sovereign power in Münster’s town hall in 1648—and the linguistic border between them is fluid. Squint a little and Münster, with its streets full of bicycles and attractive medieval architecture, could be a Dutch city.
Kemker has found both inspiration and comradeship north of the border. He works regularly with Nevel, and cites Tom Jacobs—the philosopher-brewer behind Belgian brewery Antidoot, who is also exploring the outer edges of herbal, unhopped beers—as an important influence. Further afield, when Kemker was still homebrewing, he took inspiration from the work that Lars Marius Garshol was doing documenting Nordic farmhouse brewing traditions, losing himself for hours in negotiations on Norwegian homebrewing forums to secure kveik samples.
Kemker still has a fondness for Münster’s local homebrewing community, and credits its energy and lo-fi approach for the flowering of interest in gruit and other less orthodox brewing techniques.
“Everything comes from the homebrewers,” says Benedikt Koch, who traces the origins of interest in brewing sour beers in Germany back to a podcast interview by homebrewer Andreas Bogk in 2012 about Bogk’s efforts to rescue Berliner Weisse from obscurity. “I would say 20% of all [German] homebrewers are homebrewing because of this podcast,” Koch says.
"IT WAS LIKE PUNK ROCK" And they have all used the internet to advance their knowledge, encouraged in their efforts by Facebook groups like Hobbybrauer Wild und Sauer in Germany, podcasts like the one that kickstarted the Berliner Weisse revival, and the community that has developed around Facebook group/podcast/wiki Milk The Funk. This is the substrate that has allowed this strange little subculture to grow in a German brewing scene heretofore uninterested in sour beers, and where studying brewing has long been synonymous with studying Lager. “Weizen [wheat] beer was about as extreme as it got,” Koch says.
Kemker is keen to have this homebrewing energy represented in the nascent gruit community. And that’s how Johannes Jakob got an invite to pour his beers at the Grutkultur festival. A trained social worker and probation officer, Jakob, like Overberg, started out brewing Belgian styles until a friend introduced him to yeast from Belgian farmhouse brewery Brasserie de Blaugies. He dropped the Amber Ales to brew beers assuredly outside of the German mainstream. “It was so open-minded,” Jakob says of the mixed-fermentation and gruit community he stumbled upon online. “It was like punk rock.”
“We are socialized by this stuff [Lager]. When I talk about my beers to friends, I think the first or the second question from them is, ‘Are you brewing in order to the Reinheitsgebot?’ Everyone thinks the Reinheitsgebot is the best of the best, and the only way [to brew].”
— Johannes Jakob, DønnekesJakob eventually solicited an invitation from Kemker to pour at the festival under the name Dønnekes, bringing with him samples of his smoky, tart elderflower sour alongside a “real Gruit [Ale]” infused with wild hops, yarrow and wormwood—but with an additional, unexpected twist. Jakob’s beer is fermented with a strain of Lithuanian Simonaitis farmhouse yeast that imparts a citrusy, orange character alongside the grassy bitterness of his gruit mixture.
It’s the sort of beer that goes down a treat with attendees at the festival, but is a much harder sell for Jakob’s friends—a recurring theme for the region’s Gruit Ale brewers, whose beers are popular in niche communities abroad, but are considered practically un-German at home. Germany’s Lager beer tradition casts a long shadow, one that many casual beer drinkers are unable to escape out from under. Even Jakob appreciates it—it’s just that he’s not interested in brewing beers like that. “We are socialized by this stuff [Lager],” Jakob says. “When I talk about my beers to friends, I think the first or the second question from them is, ‘Are you brewing in order to the Reinheitsgebot?’ Everyone thinks the Reinheitsgebot is the best of the best, and the only way [to brew].”
THIS IS NOT "GERMAN BEER-FLAVORED BEER" It’s a reaction familiar to Koch. “The most frequent thing I get is, ‘Yeah, but that’s not beer,’” he says of responses to his Berliner Weisses and Goses. “I get that. There is this German beer flavor, and everything in Germany is basically German beer-flavored beer.”
For Kemker, it means that despite his deep roots and affection for Münster, and his commitment to growing and sourcing as much of his ingredients as possible locally, the Münster market is hard to crack. As a result, export makes up a significant chunk of his sales. But Kemker is naturally optimistic, and he has hope that gruit’s time is coming, just as it has for kveik and Lambic.
“I've been doing it [gruit beer] since 2017. We now see it starting to reach some kind of critical mass,” he says. “Now people are talking about gruit beer, people are talking about Münster, people are talking about our brewery, and about the festival that we set up […] After three years in the business, [it’s] nice to see.”
He’s also buoyed by the sense of community on display at the Grutkultur festival. As Philip Overberg says, “At that festival you get the idea that gruit beers are totally popular all over Europe,” even if, in reality, they’re not. But there are enough Münster locals filing through the doors to suggest that even if the bemused diners trying to eat their fish pies might think herbal, unhopped, and wild-fermented beers have “no potential to exist,” in Jakob’s words, gruit culture is alive and well—and for the first time in centuries, living in Westphalia.

Words by Eoghan Walsh
Illustrations by Ben Chlapek